I Moved to London to become a Fashion PR Intern…at 37

Written by Gena Dorris

Fashion has a reputation for being a nearly impossible industry to penetrate. Even more so when you’re older than twenty-five and don’t have many personal connections. So, what are the odds that a thirty-seven-year-old American coming to London to study would land one of the most coveted internships in the business?

Let’s start at the beginning.

Why would someone at my age come to London to study and pursue an internship?

Call it a mini-mid-life crisis or just a wake-up call, but life was passing me by. I wasn’t living up to my full potential. On the outside, I had what most women my age would consider a great life, an adoring husband, beautiful home, loving family and great friends. I had worked in PR previously for an NBA basketball team as well as local charities in my area. Life was good. Except… it really wasn’t.

I always felt like I was meant for more than what the small southern city I lived in had available. I am much more of a creative soul than corporate drone, and although the previous jobs I’d held paid well and positively impacted my community, they weren’t ever really ME. And so, when I turned thirty-five it hit me that I hadn’t really done anything that I’d dreamed of doing; I’d never lived abroad. I’d never had the chance to pursue the career in fashion I dreamt of. I wasn’t utilizing my God-given talents. And I wasn’t happy.  I wondered, was it too late for me? Was this all I would be?

Fashion has always been a passion of mine. I know thousands of people say that, but there aren’t really other words to describe it. I was the girl friends called for help planning an outfit or to help them find the designer shoes in a magazine. I can’t tell you how many hours I wasted at work looking at something fashion-related online.

When I first graduated from college I worked in a law office. One of the lawyers there must have been in her seventies, and I assumed she had been practicing forever. I later found out she had been a nurse for more than thirty years before going to law school. I never forgot about her and her story inspired me. And so I slowly began to look into making a career change.

I found a program in Paris, after the deadline, applied late with permission, and wasn’t accepted. I was crushed but I knew that it was a long shot.

Call it a mini-mid-life crisis if you want, or just a wake-up call that life was passing me by and I wasn’t living up to my full potential

Months passed by and life went on as usual. I dreaded going to work every day and continued to feel uninspired and unmotivated. The more I thought about the situation, I thought that maybe fashion school wasn’t the best option. Instead of pursuing a specialized degree in fashion PR, I decided to pursue a more general degree, while still gaining experience in the fashion industry. That’s when I discovered the Master’s program in Advertising and Public Relations at Richmond American University in London. Everything about this program made sense for me. It was an American university so my degree would be accredited in both countries. Plus I could get financial aid to subsidize my living expenses while studying and possibly working unpaid internships for experience. Importantly, it was in London, a city I’d always wanted to live in and explore.

I thought, what do I have to lose? If I’m unable to “make it” in fashion in a year’s time, I’ll leave with an amazing experience living abroad and a graduate degree.

Before arriving in London, I began to research fashion PR companies for internships or work experience.  On the very top of my list was Karla Otto PR, a hugely successful international fashion PR agency that represents some of the biggest names in fashion. A chance to work there would literally be #goals. I looked for opportunities on their website, but there were no job openings or internships listed, only an email address to send a CV for future opportunities. I sent my CV and never expected to hear from them. I thought to myself, who knows how many thousands of applications they receive from people much younger and with better backgrounds?

Then, after my second term in my Master’s program, I received an email asking if I was still interested in an internship at Karla Otto. I jumped on the opportunity and scheduled an interview.

Now here’s where things got crazy. I totally almost missed my interview because I got the times mixed up! Can you believe it? The original interview was scheduled for one time but was subsequently moved up an hour earlier. By the time the interview came around, I had forgotten that the time had changed so I was late! I thought that I’d blown my chance but I emailed explaining my situation and was graciously offered the chance to come in at a later time. I also don’t think this ever happens so it must’ve really been in the cards for me to have this internship! I felt horrible and was aghast at how unprofessional I must have looked, and after the interview I didn’t think that I did well at all.

I thought, what do I have to lose? If I’m unable to “make it” in fashion in a year’s time, I’ll leave with an amazing experience living abroad and a graduate degree.

Yet, a few weeks later I received an email offering me the internship. I was elated! I couldn’t believe it. It seemed that everything that I had sacrificed by taking the risk to leave my life and come to London had paid off.

My first day of the internship I was a bundle of nerves. How would everyone treat me? Would I be able to actually DO it? Was I making a fool of myself? Most importantly, WHAT DO I WEAR?! I soon found that the dress code is strictly casual and that comfortable shoes are the most important part of your wardrobe. I decided not to make a big deal about my age. I really wanted my personality and work ethic to speak for me, and not the story behind how I got there. I wasn’t going to lie about it, but I wasn’t going to volunteer the information unless anyone asked. Surprisingly, not many people did. People say that I look younger than my age, and most assumed I was in my twenties. Another reason I didn’t volunteer the information is that I wanted to be treated just like any other intern. I wanted to earn my stripes, so to speak. I knew that most everyone that I would be interning for would be significantly younger than me, and I didn’t want them to feel uncomfortable giving menial tasks to someone older.

The moment that I stepped into the showroom for the first time, I was in awe. After a while you get used to it, but there’s nothing like walking in the first time. All of the beautiful clothes and accessories I grew up seeing in magazines, displayed under the soft glow of ornate chandeliers. There was light streaming in from the floor-to-ceiling windows.

My experience at Karla Otto was very different than how I was feeling back in the states. Every day I was excited to be there. I never dreaded coming to work and each day provided unexpected and invigorating challenges. I often arrived early because I couldn’t wait to be there (this never, ever happened in any other position – and I was doing this for free!). I finally felt like my old self again. It was truly the best experience I could have hoped for. My only regret is that I didn’t give myself the chance ten years earlier.

One of the biggest misconceptions about working in fashion is that it’s all glamorous and fun parties. Sure, you get behind-the-scenes access to some of the most notable fashion shows in the business. Yes, you’re surrounded by incredibly exclusive and expensive designer merchandise and you work on exciting celebrity projects. But let me tell you something; my internship in fashion PR was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had. The hours are long, it’s physically exhausting and you literally have no social life. You live it and breathe it and wake up in the middle of the night dreaming about it. But honestly, that’s the beauty of it all; that’s why you love it so much. The people that I worked with are some of the hardest working, most dedicated people I’ve ever met.

On the last day of the internship, I revealed my age and background to my fellow interns at our celebratory dinner. They couldn’t believe it and told me how much my story inspired them.  They encouraged me to write this piece. People tell me how brave I am to have done this, but I never saw it that way. I was only trying to find a place where I was doing something that I loved and living my best life. On this journey I’ve met so many incredible people who have touched me in ways that they probably will never know and understand. I walk away from this experience with new friends from every corner of the globe and a renewed confidence and determination that will always benefit me. I can’t thank the staff at Karla Otto London enough for giving me an opportunity to fulfill my dream and for giving me a second chance at the career I’ve always wanted.

So what exactly are my plans for the future? I would love to stay in London. I love the energy and diversity of the city; and there are so many opportunities here. My only issue is that my visa to live and work in the UK expires at the first of year. (*Shameless plug for any fashion or PR companies that want a hard-working, mature, risk-taking bad ass and are willing to take a chance and sponsor my visa!). Hey, stranger things have happened. If I have learned anything from this experience, it’s that you never know until you try. Other than that, I’m currently exploring fashion opportunities back in the States. I’m also wondering if there is such a thing as American-British? Because that is exactly what I feel like I am now, I’m forever changed and I can go into my next phase confident that I have what it takes to be everything I always dreamed I could be.

Moral of the story: Take the risk or lose the chance.

About Gena Dorris

Gena has more than 13 years of communications experience in the non-profit, sports and entertainment sectors. Her love of fashion, art and culture is the driving force behind her career shift to the fashion and luxury brands industry. In her free time, you can find her scouring vintage shops for hidden treasures, spending time with friends and family and providing personal shopping and styling services through her lifestyle brand, Unabashedly Overdressed. Connect with Gena at genadorris@gmail.com.